More Victorians voted for the Greens on Monday than for any other party on the ballot. It wasn't enough to win the by-election, but it was enough to demonstrate that Elizabeth May's party is growing up.
As anxious New Democrats watched the poll results trickle in throughout the evening, campaign insiders knew they had an edge – superior organization in the advance polls – to ensure their candidate Murray Rankin's victory. The race, however, was far closer than they expected.
Under Ms. May, the party's lone MP, the Greens are fine-tuning a strategy to break new electoral ground. They are defying the trend of stagnating voter turnout. While the other three main parties saw their base shrink in Victoria, the Greens tripled theirs. "The votes we got were from people who felt great about their vote," Ms. May said in an interview on Tuesday as she digested her party's near-upset in an NDP stronghold.
Seeing Victoria as a prime target for harvesting progressive votes, the Greens flooded the riding with volunteers on the ground, delivering a message that the popular Ms. May needs help in Ottawa. But, unsure that their untested candidate could take the heat of a tough fight, they waited until the final week to spend the bulk of their campaign dollars. The idea was to create a surge without giving the NDP time to react.
The flaw in that strategy was revealed when the advance votes were counted at the end of the night on Monday. Of about 6,500 early ballots cast – before the Green's final push – the NDP led by several thousand. That allowed Mr. Rankin to skate past his rival, with more than 1,100 votes to spare.
Ms. May will soldier on alone in Ottawa, but the Greens are less likely to be dismissed as a fringe party in the national political narrative. In the 2011 election, her party made a strategic decision to focus on getting its leader elected. Now, it is seeking to build on that by picking its battles.
The Greens directed their resources into the two most promising of the three by-elections held across the country on Monday: Victoria and Calgary.
The Green Party candidate in Calgary Centre, Chris Turner, spent Tuesday tearing down the campaign office and "licking our wounds," but still called his third-place finish with 25.6 per cent of the vote a "pretty major breakthrough."
He said his campaign attracted support across party lines – with a large contingent of unhappy Conservatives – adding that the Green Party should now be viewed as a "serious contender" in Calgary. He views the low voter turnout – little more than 29 per cent – as evidence of untapped potential support. "A new political movement of sorts is beginning to coalesce here and it's not necessarily around old party lines," Mr. Turner said.
It is not the product of a well-oiled campaign machine or a single strategist. The Green Party has a campaign committee of 15 to 18 people who devise narratives and identify opportunities to make gains.
Stephen Carter, the Calgary-based strategist behind Alison Redford's rise to the office of Alberta Premier and Naheed Nenshi's claim to Calgary's mayoralty, said the Green Party set such high expectations in Calgary Centre that the third-place finish cannot be seen as anything other than a loss. "There are no moral victories," he said. "Do I believe the Greens are going to win in the next election? No."
Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the Green Party's results in the western by-elections demonstrate a significant shift in voter preferences, where the Greens provide an alternative for Conservatives. "It looks like something real," he said of the Green Party support. "A curse on all our houses. I'm voting Green."